Prevailing in an Unwinnable War

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A couple of days ago a thought rooted in my brain: “We are in an unwinnable war.” That morning I read in Deuteronomy: “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an enemy larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deut. 20:1).

Israel won many unwinnable wars. God planned it that way. Pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, they were like a spider caught between the pavement and the soul of my shoe – pulverized! But then, God stepped in.

When Gideon’s 300 men attacked the Midianite army numbering over 100,000, they entered an unwinnable war, but for God. When Peter told those who shouted “Crucify Him!” that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” he could have been ripped to pieces, but God had a plan.

God’s people have fought many unwinnable wars, prevailing against impossible odds. Who would have guessed that persecution of Christians in China would be used by God to grow His Church 5,000 percent in 50 years? God sent David Livingstone to Africa at a time when most Europeans died within a year of entering the malarial jungles and unknown dangers there. Livingstone, and many others, died in Africa. But today African Christians outnumber those in Europe and North America combined, boasting 400 million souls! Through the darkness Livingstone saw a brighter day would come. He wrote:

“Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet” (David Livingston in Mackenzie, 150f).

God’s people have prevailed in many unwinnable wars, or should I say, “God has prevailed.” Often God’s people have bled and died in protracted wars that lasted generations beyond the lives of the initial combatants.

Churches in America find themselves in an unwinnable war, as does the nation itself. Battle lines are drawn on many fronts, and these lines don’t simply exist between the Church and the world. Battle lines exist inside the Church. There are matters of sexuality, with ongoing skirmishes involving the LGBTQ agenda. The “right to life” of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the handicapped, has raged for 50 years or more.

Then, just when it seemed Covid-19 was the greatest threat of 2020, the world witnessed the life of a black man crushed under the knee of a police officer, with other officers failing to intervene, setting off protests and riots and untold suffering in the hearts and minds of every American and people far beyond our shores. Racial problems and division have existed since the early days of our nation, and throughout human history, but we are in a unique moment. This is different. There is hope, but there is also the danger that listening, learning and reconciling get overtaken by destructive forces. Parsing words with the precision of a butcher doing surgery with a hatchet destroys the opportunity to grow understanding and influence thinking. Some seem to think they can read minds, and spot malicious intent, as easily as spotting a fly in a glass of milk. Reasonable discussion, questions and context are hard to come by. “Silence is violence,” some say, but utter the wrong word and you’ll get “cancelled” before the day ends. It is an unwinnable war.

And lest you don’t yet see how unwinnable this multi-front war is, consider that we don’t agree on the meaning of history, or even what history is. Facts are our friends, but whom do we trust to give us the facts? The media? Which media? Most media outlets aren’t helping.

What about truth? Where do we find the truth told? From politicians? Are you kidding!? Preachers? Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t trust us preachers to tell the truth without taint. Preachers can get political too, especially if we don’t stick to the Truth we know best and start spouting and spinning about that which we know little.

Add to these battle lines the fight for the family – fatherless homes, babies without parents, teens left to wander. It’s an unwinnable war.

As I was pondering this unsavory thought, I remembered a speech I’d read years ago. It was delivered by a 28 year-old Abraham Lincoln on January 27, 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The speech was occasioned by a racial problem in which St. Louis was burned. Slavery was still legal and America was tearing apart. It was ripping the Church apart too. Speaking of the possible death of the United States, Lincoln reads like a prophet these 182 years later. The full quote is posted at the end of this article for those who’d like to read it and marvel at the rhetorical brilliance of the man who freed the slaves and restored the Union. Here is the most pertinent passage:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Twenty-three years after this speech the nation divided and war took 620,000 lives in 10,500 skirmishes and 50 major battles. The record states that the North won the war, and they did, but in a very real sense the war continued throughout succeeding generations and up to the present day.

This war will continue in some form until the end of time, because it’s a war that started in Eden. It was there that man divided from God, and began dividing from each other. In Genesis 3 we see the beginning of a distancing between humans, a covering up of sin, followed by brother murdering brother in Genesis 4.

Our leaders are not smart enough, or good enough, or strong enough, to lead us to victory in the war that is raging in America. And our churches aren’t that strong, either. All our unwinnable wars are rooted in human sin, and that root runs deep in the human heart, too deep to kill.

Depressed yet? Don’t be, because God shows Himself most visibly, gloriously and powerfully during unwinnable wars. No person turns to God until they are at rope’s end and realize they need God if they hope to survive. No nation experiences awakening when the people think they are the answer to their problems. Revival comes when the church is desperate, when it doesn’t know what to do or where to turn, and it falls to its knees, and buries its face in the floor’s dirt, and wets the dirt with tears, calling out to God for mercy, begging Him to show compassion and forgive sins, that’s when God shows up and wins the war … for a time. Not forever, until Jesus returns, will the war be finally and completely won because the war proceeds from the human heart. The war surfaces within families. It erupts between neighbors. The war is with those near and far away. God doesn’t give us the capacity to win the war without Him. Without Him we’re helpless. Without Him, we wrestle in vain against principalities and powers that kill, steal and destroy. Without Him, there is no peace, no life, no hope, and no future.

And remember, Israel didn’t win all their wars. Sometimes they were felled by tiny towns like Ai. Other times they suffered near annihilation and total humiliation. Their corpses were strewn in the wilderness and eaten by birds. Some were swallowed up by the earth itself. I apologize for the sad reminder, but not really, because if we think we can win the war, I mean really win, we’re doomed. Only God can win this war. We need Him. He’s a God of righteousness and justice. He didn’t let the tower of Babel stand when the people stood apart from Him, and He never will let us prevail in this war apart from Him.

The struggles that we face are mostly within ourselves. Racism is a heart problem, as is hate and bitterness and pride and lust and lovelessness of all kinds. It’s in the heart that the battle rages most fiercely. It’s the heart of every single person, of every color and hue, under heaven. Only God can win that war. Only the blood of Jesus can quell those flames. Only the Holy Spirit can spread the balm of peace that produces love one for another, sufficient to pursue righteousness and justice for all.
Without Jesus we have laws, courts, negotiations, punishments, coercion, threats, intimidation … and war. We need a system of justice, the best that we can build. But in the end, apart from Jesus, the war is unwinnable. Until He comes, His people must live as salt and light, loving sacrificially, seeking justice and preaching the Truth, even when the world does not understand.

Come, Lord Jesus. You are our only real hope. But You are enough.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Text of Lincoln’s speech quoted above:

“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running…. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth…. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

“How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” (to read the full speech of go to http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm).

Trust: The Essential Leadership Quality During Crisis

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When I was 14 years-old my family drove 265 miles from Whitefish, MT to Spokane, WA to see the movie Jaws. My grandparents lived near Spokane so seeing the movie wasn’t the only reason for our trip, but it’s the only part I remember. When we got to the theater there was a long line and the theater filled before we got in, so we stood in line for the next showing. It was worth it! To this day Jaws is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. One thing that made the movie scary is that you didn’t see the monster. For much of the movie Jaws was unseen, but terrifying and brutal, attacking unknowing swimmers from the murky depths.

Like the shark in Jaws, Covid-19 is an unseen killer, but unlike Jaws there’s almost no place of safety. “Stay out of the water” and Jaws won’t bite you! But nearly every landmass in the world has reported cases of the virus. As of today, April 30, 210 countries and territories have reported cases of Covid-19. The first death in the U.S. from the virus is believed to be a woman in California on February 6, 2020. Twelve weeks later, 61,867 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., and 231,415 in the world.

Nothing in our lifetime has challenged leaders on the scale of this killer virus. From the President to governors and mayors and school principals, and from business owners to church pastors to moms and dads, leading through this crisis is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s difficult because we can’t see the killer and define it with precision. It’s difficult because the means of victory are more costly than anything we’ve ever experienced, and we can’t quite agree on what exactly are the proper means. It’s difficult because the solutions, we are told, will be determined by science and data, but it’s not a “pure science.” Shutting down business and church and sports and national parks and staying home in isolation is a primary tactic to fight this enemy. But the science that has determined this as our best, first tactic, creates other problems, and some of them are deadly too. Over 30 million have filed for unemployment in six weeks. Job loss and the inability to pay bills leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse in the home, and even suicide. Businesses built over a lifetime are being destroyed. How long do we keep things shut-down, and should stay-at-home orders be applied uniformly across the country or throughout a particular state? The decisions will be determined by science and data, we are told, but who interprets the data and how best do we apply the science? And how do the scientific disciplines of medicine, social science, political and economic sciences, interact as decisions are made?

So, with these leadership difficulties identified, and they are not the only challenges, what is the most important thing a leader can do in such a crisis? Quite simply, leaders must tell the truth. Tell the truth as best as you know it and as completely as you can. Don’t “manage the truth.” Tell the truth. Distort nothing. Be fully transparent. Confess what you don’t know. State what you do you know. Don’t overstate, or understate, just tell the truth. Manipulate no one. Don’t exaggerate things, and don’t try to reassure people by minimizing the situation, either. Lament loss. Acknowledge disaster, even as you express biblical hope. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

John Barry’s outstanding book, The Great Influenza, tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people. The book is a thrilling, terrifying account of what happened then and is happening now on a smaller scale. In the Afterword to the 2018 edition Barry writes, “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.” He says, “As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror … by minimizing it, by trying to reassure.” He writes further, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other” (pp. 460f).

Barry is right. Telling the truth, as best we know it, builds trust. Lying, hiding the truth, being dishonest with what you know and don’t know, destroys trust. And when leaders lose trust, they’ve lost the ability to lead. You’ve seen it – a brilliant and gifted person who can’t lead a country, a church, or even their own family because they’re not trusted. Nothing compensates for loss of trust.

What’s true about leadership during a mega-pandemic is true about leadership when the crisis is isolated to one family, or one church, or a large network of churches. Truth-telling, which is necessary to build trust, isn’t just vital for governments, it’s vital at all levels of leadership. Trust is the essential thing a leader must have. Thus, the crisis that is most damaging long-term is not the crisis event itself, but the erosion of trust that can destroy relationships, organizations, and the essence of society and culture.

Here is a worthy prayer: “God protect me from doing things or saying things that erode the trust that others have placed in me. God heal the wounds I inflict when my actions create distrust. God help me be a person you can trust, so that I am worthy of the trust of others.”

The Heart of God’s Shepherd – Jeremiah 16:1-14

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(Note: this is the synopsis of a message I did that I thought might be appropriate for such a time as this)

In our bedroom I have a painting of the missionary David Livingstone. After my first visit to Africa, I began to read his journals and some biographies as well. Livingstone buried children, his wife, and suffered incredibly as he took the gospel to Africa. One of the things I found remarkable is that the name Livingstone is still revered by Africans. There are several towns named after him. The largest city in Malawi is Blantyre. Blantyre is not an African word. It’s Scottish. It’s the little town in which Livingston was born.

After his little girl died of Malaria, he wrote a letter to his sister in which he said, “Fever may cut us all off. I feel much when I think of the children dying. But who will go if we don’t? Not one. I would venture everything for Christ. Pity I have so little to give. But He will accept us, for He is a good master. Never one like Him. He can sympathize. May He forgive, and purify and bless us” (Mackenzie 113). In another letter he wrote, “A parent’s heart alone can feel as I do when I look at my little ones and ask, shall I return with this or that one alive?” (Mac, 114).

Livingstone knew he would see little fruit from his labor. But he also knew there was a day coming in which others would harvest from fields in which he sowed. He wrote:

“It seems very unfair to judge the success of these [missions] by the number of conversions which have followed…. Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet…. For this time we work. May God accept our humble imperfect service.” (Mackenzie, 150f).

Today Africa has more professing Christians than Europe and North America combined, and some of this can be traced to a man who embodied God’s heart and was willing to suffer for Christ. We see people like this in the Bible, the prophets and the apostles, for whom obedience to God meant everything.

Jeremiah. David Livingstone, I think, felt a kinship with Jeremiah. Jeremiah wept the tears of God. He entered so much into the mind and heart of God that he embodied the feelings of God. Jeremiah not only spoke the Words of God, but Jeremiah felt the emotions of God. When you read his book, as I have dozens of times, you discover that Jeremiah doesn’t present the people’s pain to God. Jeremiah presents God’s pain to the people. Jeremiah knew the pain of God. But God demanded more of Jeremiah than emotional empathy. God demanded his whole life, physical, social, everything about Jeremiah became a living enactment of his message. And it made him hurt.

Jeremiah’s personal story is particularly striking in chapter 16. There, God told Jeremiah “You must not marry or have sons or daughters” (16:1). This was a devastating demand, but Jeremiah was called to embody in his life the catastrophe that would engulf all of Israel’s families. No family. And no funerals, either (16:5). Using a shocking triple negative, God told Jeremiah don’t go to funerals because the coming catastrophe would be so great that normal mourning would be abandoned.

No family. No funerals. No feasting. Jeremiah lived in loneliness and exclusion. He embodied what it meant for God to be driven out by the people He loved. Of interest is that Jeremiah was from Anatoth. Anatoth was where the priests lived who were banished by Solomon. Jeremiah was not a priest in Jerusalem. He was a descendent of the priest Abiathar, who supported Solomon’s older brother Adonijah to become king. Solomon said he deserved to die for that, but he let him live because he carried the Ark in the presence of King David (1 Kings 2:13-27). So Abiathar was banished to Anatoth and Jeremiah was his descendent. So, when God wanted a man to represent him, to embody the pain of God, he didn’t choose a priest from Jerusalem. He chose an outsider from Anatoth.

Maybe you’re an outsider. You don’t come from a “made family.” Nobody set you up to be the next best thing. That was Jeremiah. Maybe you can relate to him. But Jeremiah came to know God, and his heart was shaped by God, and he did what God told him to do, even if it brought him great suffering.

The prosperity gospel of health and wealth and happiness is made to look as stupid as it is by the life of the Prophets and the Apostles. It was precisely his obedience that thrust Jeremiah into 40 years of suffering and sorrow. God did speak to Jeremiah about the future restoration, but He also made clear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see it. When you preach from the hope passages of Jeremiah, like 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you … plans for your welfare …” you need remember, the restoration of Israel came after that generation was dead.

So what can we learn about shepherding God’s people from Jeremiah 16?

1. To shepherd the people of God you must enter into the heart and mind of God.

We cannot serve God’s people if we cannot hear God when He speaks, and if we don’t enter into His heart and mind, the mind of Christ, the Father’s heart. I’m actually quite concerned that some think that to shepherd God’s people you have to know the mind of Rick Warren, or Ed Stetzer, or, Matt Chandler, or pick your favorite (not that these aren’t good men from whom we can learn). Or, to lead the people of God you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices. No. To lead the people of God, you must hear from God. You must know His heart. And even embody His heart and mind. That is first, second and third.

2. To shepherd God’s people you must present to them the heart and mind of God.

This is what you see in the prophets and the Apostles. You especially see it in Jeremiah. Jeremiah uses that phrase, “The word of the Lord” or “the Lord says” more than any other. In 16:1 “the word of the Lord came to me.” 16:3 “This is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is what the Lord says.” 16:5 “this is the Lord’s declaration.” 16:9 “this is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says.” People don’t need to know what their shepherds think about spiritual things. People expect their shepherds will talk to God in prayer, then reveal God’s heart and mind as expressed in His Word.

3. Those who shepherd God’s people must embody His message.

The classic definition defines preaching as “truth through personality.” The word “personality” speaks of the entire person – character, integrity, physicality, everything. When you listen to Jeremiah, and when you examine his life, you know, “This man was not a hypocrite. This man didn’t say one thing and do another.” He embodied the message.

4. Shepherds pay a price, often a big price.

This is where it gets tough for spiritual shepherds. You will pray a price. Probably not as big a price as Jeremiah – no marriage, no kids, no social life, starved at times, thrown in a hole. The annihilation and destruction of his city and his country. Continual rejection throughout the 40 years of his ministry. It won’t get that bad for most, but you will suffer.

David Livingstone’s favorite verse was, “Lo I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The promise of Jesus’ presence, through it all, sustained him. Jesus is present with you too, if you trust in Him, and He will see you through to the very end.

The Newspaper’s Role in Your Leadership

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It was once said a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning that the sermon needs to connect biblical truth to life today, life in this world, and life in a particular place. That image of the pastor-preacher with the Bible and the newspaper made sense when I first heard it many years ago. It still resonates with me. I suspect, however, it lacks the impact it once had. That’s a shame.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle on this one. Newspapers are in decline. Most young adults don’t read them anymore. News is found in other places and with personal “filters.” Uphill battle or not, it’s one that deserves a fight. Ministry leaders need to read their local newspaper. Thumbing through the paper with your hands, your eye catches things it won’t if you read the paper on your smartphone or computer.

First, your local newspaper helps you to know your community. Your city has issues involving economic, political, legal, educational and moral aspects of life. These are issues particular to your community. The churches, residents, schoolchildren, businesses, homeowners, homeless, everyone in the community is affected by decisions of community leaders and the particular issues the city is facing. And certain hot-button issues change daily. No person should know more about the city than ministry leaders. You might pick up bits and pieces down at the coffee shop or through the internet, but the local newspaper will give you the broadest coverage of life in your community. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t relate something from the newspaper to my sermon text on Sunday.

Second, who’s being born and who is dying in your town? Most local papers will inform you daily or weekly about these matters. If someone is killed in a tragic accident, or a young person’s life is cut short in some way, the church needs to know about it and maybe you can minister to the family. At the very least you can pray for them. Churches have been built by ministering to families of newborns. Who is filing a marriage license or divorce papers? Who was arrested for a DUI or other criminal behavior? The paper will tell you. Maybe you can reach out to them. Maybe you host substance abuse classes, or Divorce Care classes, or parenting classes and they can be invited to attend.

Third, what’s going on at the schools in your town? Which students had a great game, excelled in a sporting event, suffered an injury, have a part in the school play, or won the spelling bee? Every week young people in your town are featured in the local newspaper. How encouraging it is for them to receive an extra copy of the article, with a note written by a pastor, Sunday school teacher or other ministry leader!

Fourth, ministry leaders can use the paper to influence others. You can write letters to the editor. I’ve written articles for local papers and established relationships with reporters. Sometimes the local paper will publish articles about something the church is doing as a by-product of these relationships.
Fifth, the local newspaper will help you to pray for your city and its leaders. Every city has people and situations that need prayer. The newspaper will provide you matters for which to pray each and every day.

These principles are not for people who don’t care about their city or have no desire to impact their city. This is about ministry leaders, sent by God to a particular place, for a particular time. No one should know more about the city, and care more about its people, than the ministry leaders called there. The newspaper is indispensable in connecting you to the city in a holistic way.

Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Wept. Will We?

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Jesus issued commands and commissions. He also cried. The commands of Jesus instructed the church from its first days, but so too did His compassion. Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus dead (John 11:35). He was “moved with compassion” and healed those stricken by terrible diseases and malformations (Mark 1:41). He welcomed the weary and burdened (Matt. 11:28).

With all Jesus did as our sinless Savior, crucified and risen, and with all that He said that no other man could ever say, it’s the compassion of Jesus for the bruised and broken, the dirty and disfigured and damaged, that most revealed His heart. Powerful? Yes. Jesus is powerful in creation and salvation and in every other way. Wise? Jesus’ wisdom is perfect. But He also wept. He felt. He hurt. He suffered.

A few months ago, on a day when I learned some disturbing news, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words “Jesus wept” in my mind. Those words haven’t long left my thoughts since.

“Jesus wept” has challenged me personally. I fear I weep too little, and then too often for the wrong reasons.

“Jesus wept” has also spoken to me about the proper response when our ministry is weak and ineffective. The annual compilation of statistics for SBC churches was released this week. What they reveal is deeply sad. It prompted me to think, “Jesus wept. Will we?”

Before I get into the national SBC numbers, let me say I am most grateful that our Northwest churches have grown in ministry impact by almost every measure. For three consecutive years our churches have baptized more new disciples of Jesus Christ than the prior year, with 2,046 baptisms in 2016, up from 2,007 in 2015. Total worship attendance increased to 30,616 from 30,147. Total missions giving increased to $6,914,914 from $6,129,398, and Cooperative Program giving also showed a significant increase in 2016, though that is not a number included in the annual church profile report.
Probably the most important thing about the annual report is the trend line.

In the Northwest the trends are heading in the right direction, and for this I am grateful. Not that we’re beating our chests in triumphal victory. Far from it. Lostness is so great in our area that at times we wonder if we’ll ever make real progress. Half of our churches average 50 and below. It’s a struggle for many of our pastors and churches just to survive. Still, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we are thankful to see our ministries inching forward. From the NWBC level, we feel that our focus on evangelism, missions (including church planting), and training leaders is serving our churches well. We exist to extend the missions impact of our churches and to help equip leaders in our churches. We are doing that. We believe in cooperative/collaborative work in the Northwest. This includes cooperating with our SBC partners. Our partnership with NAMB mostly involves church planting, but also some on evangelism. Our East Asia IMB partnership has proven to be a huge blessing to our missionaries and our NWBC churches. Our partnership with Gateway Seminary has had enormous impact on the Northwest as hundreds of our leaders have attended Gateway (formerly Golden Gate Seminary) and graduated from its programs with increased effectiveness.

Although my primary focus is the NWBC, as it should be, I am concerned for the SBC nationally. We are part of this important family. Consider these statistics from the 2016 annual church profile:

Baptisms – 280,773 people in 2016, down from 295,212 in 2015 for 4.89 percent decline. A decade ago we were baptizing over 350,000 people annually. We haven’t reached fewer than 300,000 since the 1940s, until the last two years. Again, the trend nationally has been downward for several years.

Worship attendance – 5.2 million weekly, which is a drop from about 5.55 million, for a 6.75 percent decline.

Church starts – 732 new church plants, down from 926 in 2015. I don’t remember when we’ve seen so few church plants. Until this decade we regularly reported over 1,200 new church plants each year.

Cooperative Program percentage – 5.16 percent of the church budget on average, down from 5.18 percent the year prior. In the Northwest the average is about 7 percent per church, for which we are most grateful. The trend toward lower CP missions giving has been going on for decades and is now less than half of what it once was.

Added to these statistics is the fact that our IMB mission force is 25 percent smaller than it was two years ago with 1,200 fewer field missionaries. Our international missions force has not only been greatly reduced in numbers, but many of those who left the field were seasoned leaders with language and cultural skills developed over ten or twenty years and more. This alone ought to make us weep.

Next week is the annual meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, AZ. While gathered we need to face the hard facts and not smooth things over with anecdotes and a few good stories. Is God at work in many of our churches and ministries? Certainly He is. But the job of leaders requires that we take the satellite view of things. We need to look at the major trend lines. We need to ask the questions, “Why? Why the decline? How did we get here? What do we need to change? How do we move forward?” I believe that we can identify reasons for our decline nationally and each denominational agency and trustee board, each convention of churches, every association and local church leader has a part to play in this. And after saying all that, my great hope is that we will drop to our knees and weep. That would be in keeping with the meeting’s theme – “Pray for such a time as this.”

The great genius of Southern Baptists is that our cooperation is voluntary. Voluntary cooperation through the Cooperative Program has enabled us to develop a system of associations, state conventions, educational institutions, and mission boards unparalleled in history. But for a voluntary system of support to thrive there must a high level of trust and respect for all partners. That’s too often missing in our work these days.

In a voluntary system, when significant problems arise, leaders are often hesitant to talk about them publically for fear that it will demotivate cooperative giving. Let me be clear, there is no other denomination or convention of churches that is doing more to reach the lost in the United States and around the world than Southern Baptists. If you know of one please tell me. We have every reason to support the SBC and to increase our support. No one sends more missionaries. No one starts more churches. No one disciples more people. No seminary system educates more preachers. But we should do better. We used to do better and we can again. If we fail our impact for Christ will grow less and less and less.

I’m going to stop there. I’m going to pray, maybe even shed a tear.

When Tomorrow Comes

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A key leadership responsibility is preparing for the future. That’s a difficult task considering the chaotic and rapidly-changing time in which we live. Still, there are some things that we know and for which we can prepare.

First, when tomorrow comes we will not be exempt from the principalities and powers who are working to destroy human life created in God’s image. As perplexing as the manifestation of evil is, the Bible shows us that our enemy works at every level of society. How do we understand the increasing coarseness of our political life, the growing vulgarity in public life, even the division and compromise that threatens our church life, without knowing that our enemy is working to destroy that which God loves? Whatever happens tomorrow, you must expect and prepare for spiritual opposition.

Second, though the powers of darkness are working to destroy us, God has put limitations on the principalities and powers. Evil exists, but God is in control, and He even uses evil men to accomplish good things. We must not fall into the trap of overestimating the enemy and underestimating God. When tomorrow comes, God will be on His throne, hearing our prayers, accomplishing His agenda, and rescuing human beings from our sin and stupidity. This is our true basis for optimism when tomorrow comes.

Third, the discipling of children is essential for a bright tomorrow. If you don’t disciple your children, the world will. The principalities and powers work to distort the human mind and this begins in childhood. Preschool children develop ideas about the world and the “powers” work to conform the minds and hearts of our kids to the world’s ways. We must fight this. Every believer, every church, must work to reach children and teach them to obey God. Whatever you do, don’t forget the children who will inhabit tomorrow’s world.

Fourth, the American Church is returning to the norm. The Church is a pilgrim people, out-of-step with society, often poor and sometimes persecuted. The American Church has escaped the norm for much of our history, but that is changing. We need to prepare for this. Most of the world’s believers are already poor and persecuted. There are more Christians in Africa than in Europe and the United States combined, and they are mostly poor. China has about the same number of weekly worshippers as the U.S.A. does, and they are persecuted. I’m not saying the American church will experience what the Asian church does today, but a bright tomorrow requires that we put our hope in God and not in the American political process. Not that we should abandon political participation, but spiritual work is done on our knees before an open Bible.

God’s Word tells us that the day will come when time will be no more. On that day the curse will be removed and the daylight will vanquish the night forever (Rev. 22:3-5). Until that day, with every tomorrow the Lord gives, fix your eyes on Jesus and join Him in the spiritual battle for souls.

Make Disciples – Part 2, Discipling a community

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In Part 1 of “Make Disciples” we focused on the wording of Matthew 28:19 in which Jesus told the Eleven that they were to “disciple all the nations.” Working on the premise that the greatest mission success of the 19th Century was the Christianization of the United States, I suggested that discipling the U.S. was a matter of evangelization, resulting in church starting, followed by the formation of Christian ministries and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and orphanages, among other things.

Now, let’s think about “discipling the community.” When I served in the Bible belt state of Oklahoma I learned that while Oklahoma was more churched than Washington State, there was still great variation from one community to the next regarding church attendance. In some communities well under 10 percent attended church on a given Sunday, while in others more than 40 percent were in church. In the Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho), while church attendance is below that of southern states, and the number of churches is lower for the population, there are some exceptions to this. There are communities in the Northwest that are quite Christian and church attendance is high.

So how does a community become more Christian? First, we must understand that it takes generations to disciple a nation or a community. Discipleship implies more than making God’s Word known to a community or a people. It requires that God’s Word penetrate into the distinctive ways of thought, relational networks, and those special ways of doing things that give a community its commonality, coherence, and identity. Discipling a community means that biblical truth and thinking must enter the patterns of thought and life of that community. The way a people think and make decisions, the bonds that hold a community together, don’t change or develop quickly. It is a long process (see Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 50).

Second, some towns are more Christian because exceptional pastors and other godly leaders gave their lives to discipling the community. Spiritual leadership makes a huge difference, especially when a city is blessed with great leaders spanning two or more generations.

Pastors and churches can do several things to disciple their community. First, pray for your community, its leaders, churches, businesses, school and children. Pray for the various groups of people in the community. Prayer might seem obvious, but doing the obvious doesn’t always happen. Most churches devote little time to praying for their community during their public worship services. As one who worships in 40 or more churches each year I can tell you that I seldom hear prayer that lifts up the local community, or any Kingdom or mission concerns.

Second, identify the various networks of people in the community (language and ethnicity, social groupings, occupational groups, sports community, arts community, etc.), pray for them, and explore ways to connect with them. The larger the town the more groupings of people there will be. But even in a small town you will have several different groupings. It could be that your church members are already a part of several different groups.

Third, identify community needs and those who are working/tasked to meet those needs. As you identify needs, explore ways that God might use your church to meet one or more of these needs. Schools and service organizations often welcome churches who offer to help them.

Fourth, build relationships and friendships with community leaders. If you care about your community leaders as individuals, and aren’t seeking to “get something” from them, God can bless these relationships in unexpected ways.

Fifth, focus on children and young people. When discipling a community, do not neglect the young ones. In childhood we develop our sense of right and wrong and personal disciplines. A child can and will learn almost anything, and they can become anything God wants them to become. The older we get the harder it is to change behaviors, values, careers, everything. Decisions we make as adolescents will shape our entire lives. Nothing a church does is more important than what it does to love and reach children for Jesus Christ.

Sixth, orient the ministry of the church to obeying the teaching of Scripture in ways that connect with the needs of your community. Your town is unlike any other town. There is no “model church” doing what your church needs to do because each community is different and the particular composition of the Body of Christ is different for each local church and for the local churches in a particular community.

There is much more that could be said, and examples that could be given, to elaborate and illustrate how to disciple a community. But one final thought might help – learn to both “love” and “like” your church and your town. If we don’t find a way to love and like the people where we serve we will limit our effectiveness. God’s work is all about our relationship with Him and with others. Both must be strong for Him to use us to disciple our town.

Pastors, Please Enjoy Christmas with your Family

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One December I spent 22 nights away from home leading up to Christmas Day. Then I repented and never did that again!

The December schedule is fast-paced for many but perhaps more so for pastors. Class Christmas parties, community events, special Christmas services at church – if you try to do it all it can become too much. This year Christmas Day is on Sunday, so even that day cannot be fully devoted to your children and family. While many travel to be with family on Christmas, pastors rarely do so because Christmas is too important to miss, including the traditional “Christmas Eve services” many churches have. For 25 years I never went “home” for Christmas. I’m not complaining about that, and I don’t have any regrets about it. It’s just reality for a pastor.

Please don’t misunderstand, I love and loved all that we do in our churches for Christmas. I love to sing the traditional Christmas songs. Joy to the World is my favorite. Christmas Eve services can be truly special times of worship, marked with tenderness and wonder and joy. And Christmas provides our churches unique outreach and ministry opportunities. But pastors need to be careful not to neglect their families during this meaningful time of year, and church members need to help them in this regard.

So, what is a busy, conscientious pastor to do? Here are a few things to consider. First, prioritize your children’s Christmas activities. Attend their school Christmas events. If you don’t have children, or if your children are grown up, you might have grandchildren activities to consider. Family commitments change with the seasons of life. Churches should understand that a pastor with children in the house has obligations (and opportunities) that older pastors may not have.

Second, as your children grow, and are able, involve them in the special Christmas ministry opportunities of the church. One church I served prepared and delivered meals on Christmas Day to hundreds of homes. We delivered meals to widows and shut-ins that had no one to spend Christmas with and we delivered meals to poor families. One thing I was impressed with was how many families made this a Christmas tradition with their children. Parents used it as an opportunity to teach their children the importance of serving others, especially the poor and lonely. Some churches sing Christmas carols in nursing homes and other places, which gives families an opportunity to sing and serve together.

Third, take some time away after Christmas. And churches, be generous with your pastor concerning his vacation days and time away from the church field. It’s difficult for pastors to truly get a “day off” unless they leave town. I know that was true for me (and with cell phones it’s next to impossible!).

There are other things you could add to this short list. And please do. My main point is this – a big part of a pastor’s responsibility is to model family-life for the church. One way we do this is by taking care of ourselves and our families. Our wives and children will understand when a pressing matter or crisis takes us away, as long as it is truly a crisis event and not us constantly scheduling them out of our lives.

Things happen. Pastors and parents make mistakes. We all do. But when we do, we need to repent and change course. That’s what I did in December 1995 when I spent 22 nights away from home leading up to Christmas. I’ve had to correct course since then as well, but I won’t quickly forget what I learned 21 years ago.

Checklist for Planning a Worship Service

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Recently I led a seminar for the Columbia Basin Baptist Association on planning a worship service. The following is the handout I used and I thought it might be helpful to others who plan worship services.

A classic and helpful understanding of corporate worship was given by Soren Kierkegaard more than 150 years ago. He said that in a service of worship God is the audience, the congregants are the performers, and the pastor is the prompter. If this is a correct, and I believe that it is, then worship needs to be directed toward God with the intent of pleasing Him. Worship leaders are to lead congregants to “perform” for God, to engage with God, in thought and heart and behavior. Worshippers are not consumers of religious products and the worship leaders are not the suppliers of such products.

This in no way infers that worship leaders should ignore the presence of unbelievers and church guests attending a service of Christian worship. Worship services are a major entry way into churches and into the Kingdom for the unbeliever. As missionaries have identified, unbelievers experience two “conversions” as they come to Christ. First, they are converted to us. Second, they are converted to Christ. They first ask the question, “Do I like/respect these church people?” If they do, then they will listen to what we say about Christ. Worship leaders must guide the congregants with clarity and understanding, much like a Holy Land tour guide explains each step of the pilgrim’s journey through Jerusalem. With this in mind, the following checklist is helpful in worship planning.

1. Prayer

a. For what do we need to pray? What do we need to say to God? What do we need to hear from God? Even as the pastor prepares his sermon, he should prepare to lead the congregation in prayer by making a prayer list as the week passes.
b. When will we pray? Beginning of the service? Pastoral prayer? End of service?
c. Who will lead in prayer? Methods of praying that will be employed?

2. God’s Word, the Bible

a. What passages will we read and when will we read them?
b. Who will we select to read God’s Word? (Pastor/preacher, men, women, children)
c. Is the reading of God’s Word a central act of our worship?

3. Music/singing

a. What do we want to teach through the song(s)? Does the song teach biblical truths?
b. Does the congregation know the song?
c. Is the song singable? Is the music in a range that men and women can sing?
d. Does the song magnify God and exalt Jesus Christ?
e. Do any of the songs mention Jesus? The gospel?
f. Does the music leader engage the congregation and lead them to sing? (eye contact, facial expression, smile, good use of transitions between songs)
g. When using a “praise team,” does each member sing every verse? If not, what does this communicate to the congregation?
h. Caution: worship music can sometimes become performance rather than leading the congregation to participate, making the congregation the audience rather than God.

4. Testimonies

a. Is there someone who can share a testimony that connects to the theme of the message and the Scripture?
b. Has someone experienced God and the church would benefit from hearing their story?
c. New believer testimonies, including young people?
d. Testimonies of sharing Christ with a lost person?

5. Message/sermon

a. What biblical text does God want me to preach/teach?
b. What is the central truth of the text?
c. How and when will I read the text? When I do, how should I hold the Bible?
d. How will the text and its truth be communicated and applied?
e. Big Question for the preacher – Do you believe what you say, or is this just helpful information or good advice?
f. Am I preaching to those present?
g. What do I want the congregation to know, believe or do as a result of the message?
h. Am I aiming for the heart and not just the head?
i. Who attending needs to know Christ as Savior or follow Him in baptism?
j. Is PowerPoint helpful?
k. Is the message internalized?
l. What level of eye contact do I seek to maintain (at least 80 percent)?

6. Opportunity to respond to God’s call

a. How will we give people the opportunity to say “yes” to Christ?
b. Methods of response/invitation? Will we use multiple methods?
c. How will we share with the congregation decisions for Christ that are made in the worship service?
d. How will we welcome new believers and new members into the church?

7. How will you receive the offering (the correct word is “receive,” not “take”)? How can we do stewardship education as we prepare to receive the offering? Is there information we can share about how this offering will be used in God’s work?

8. Is there something we can celebrate or highlight as we worship?

9. Is our worship “indigenous?” i.e. using the gifts and talents of the people God has given us?

10. If a lost person, or a person unfamiliar with our church, attends today, would he know what to do during every aspect of the service? Are we assuming people know how to find a biblical text, have a Bible, or that they know the stories of the Bible, or that they know when to sing, etc.? How can we make everything clear and helpful to a guest?

11. How do we give new people an opportunity to learn about Christ and our church?

12. Are there opportunities to express joy and gratitude as we worship?

The pastor/preacher is the worship leader of the church because he is the church’s theologian by the call of God, spiritual gifting, educational training, and the call of the church. As a part of his calling, therefore, the pastor must give direction as to the content and flow of the worship service. Worship planning can be done as a team, and it’s generally best to do it that way. But the pastor knows what he’s trying to accomplish through the message and the worship service should flow from that.

In addition, wise pastors know that vision transfers through people not paper. The vision that God gives a pastor (the source of the vision must be from God) must be transferred into the hearts of the people in order for it to become the vision of the church. This is a key job of the pastor as servant-leader. The worship service provides the pastor his best opportunity to lead the church into God’s preferred future.